Tuesday, November 17, 2009

to believe, to provoke, to encourage (hebrews 10)

There are those who stand outside the religious community and criticize it---it is too self-absorbed, too much like a club, oblivious to the needs of the world, caught up in its trappings. The critique can happen while you are standing on the sidelines of a soccer match in a suburb, or gathered around a barstool in an urban pub; it could be voiced by your neighbor or Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins of our own day or, in modern intellectual history, by Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx.

There is a strong critique to be made of religious life, but the irony is that this critique is actually there in the scriptures. No one is harsher on the church or the synagogue than the prophets, or Jesus (remember Jesus‘ comments last Sunday about the scribes in contrast to the widow who placed two coins in the treasury), or today’s reading from the New Testament Book of Hebrews. Hebrews is an anonymous letter written to a community of people who once had a strong faith in Jesus, but over time something had happened.

Do you know the old classic “You’ve Lost that Lovin Feeling?” BMI, the Broadcast Music Industry identified it in 1999 as the most played song of the twentieth century. It’s been recorded by the Righteous Brothers and Elvis, by Roberta Flack and Hall and Oates, by Dionne Warwick and Glen Campbell and Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.

Why was that song so popular? It resonates with a profound human experience that is present and then….well, “you’ve lost that loving feeling”. Late in the first century a community of Christians were moving away from faith in Jesus and back to old patterns of religious behavior. And so Hebrews is a response to all of that.

Today’s epistle begins with a religious scene, the priest making sacrificial offerings on behalf of the people. There was a long tradition of all of this, it is there in the Book of Leviticus, among other places. There is the priest, making the same sacrifices, over and over again, but, the writer says, they can never take away sins. There is the critique: it is not going to get us anywhere. Authentic religion is not going to a place, watching the holy people doing things that we are not able to do, on our behalf. It is something very different .

And here Hebrews makes it plain: Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins (verse 12), again in verse 14, a single sacrifice. Religion is not something we do for God, it is something God does for us. We recall the last word from the cross: It is finished. And for that reason it is not subjective. Yes, maybe you’ve lost that loving feeling, but that is not the point. Our feelings of guilt and sin cause us to want someone to do something for us, over and over again, to make us feel better, but—in relation to the question of our being made right with our Maker-- it is irrelevant.

Christ did all of this, once and for all. It is finished. In contrast to the endlessly repetitive act, there is the one, singular definitive event, at the cross, Jesus makes a new covenant, not like the old covenant that was not sufficient, a new covenant, the cross, the sign of a relationship made possible by God for humanity, I will put my laws in their hearts, I will write them on their minds, I will remember their sins no more, all is forgiven, where there is forgiveness there is no longer any need for an offering for sin.

What is a sin offering?

Years ago I served a small parish in the rolling hills of central Virginia. Among the forty or so members of our congregation was a man named Buck, who was an alcoholic. It was a small community, and all of this was public. Buck’s wife was a saint, most spouses of alcoholics are saints. I was a young minister in graduate school, attending classes at the University of Virginia during the week, preaching and visiting on the weekends. Buck struggled with the effects of his drinking, but he had married into the family, so people worked with him. One evening Buck drove his automobile off the side of a hill, into a ravine. He walked away from the accident, unharmed.

I drove out and met with Buck and his wife, Joyce. Buck was repentant. Joyce was angry. I listened, they talked, I listened some more, they cried, we prayed, I drove home. This was a Friday night. On Sunday morning I arrived at the church, there were usually 30 or so of us there, and Buck stood up to make an announcement. He was taking everyone out to lunch, at the restaurant in town, after the worship service. Now these were working people, and this never happened, but that day all 30 of us went out to eat together.

It was a strange gathering. Looking back, it was a “sin offering”. And we were in collusion with Buck. Did Buck stop drinking? No. Did Buck intend to stop drinking? No. But there I was, the religious leader, enjoying the lunch along with everyone else in Beulah United Methodist Church, and taking part in an ancient pattern of behavior---

We commit a sin, we make an offering, the world is made right. Somehow, Buck’s paying for lunch restored things to an an order that had been put out of sorts by his driving off the cliff.

There is something very wrong about all of this, Hebrews says. Everything in the world has been put in order by one singular and definitive event: Christ crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. If you get this, Hebrews says, there is no longer any offering for sin. Jesus paid it all.

Now this does have implications, and here the lesson moves from gift to response, from theology to ethics, from all that God has done for us to all that we do in response.

A first basic response is to enter the sanctuary. Most everyone in our culture believes in God, the polls tell us; not everyone enters the sanctuary. Why? Some think worship is boring or irrelevant or simply not true. Some think they are not religious people, not sufficiently spiritual to be worshipping a holy God.

We enter the sanctuary, we are here, because of the person and work of Jesus, his blood, his sacrifice (not ours), he has ripped apart the holy of holies that separates the God-fearers from the high priests, he has shredded the categories of religious and non-religious, spiritual and material, it is a new and living way, and he has done this through his flesh, the incarnation, God becoming a human being.

Jesus is the high priest in the house of God, and we are here, with hearts filled with the assurance of faith. The external sign of our entrance into this holy space is baptism (our bodies washed with pure water), but the internal sign is the changed heart.

To be here is to have confidence in what God has done for us, to trust in this good news. This is conversion. But what happens then? Maybe we have settled the idea that God has accomplished all of this, twenty centuries ago, and changed everything, forever, but what next?

This is precisely why Hebrews was written, and this ancient letter could not be more relevant for us. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. Why write that? Because some were falling away. Hold fast, don’t lose hope, don’t waver. And yet hundreds of thousands, millions of people are living in this world, they once had a strong belief, a deep faith, a profound hope and it is gone. It was already happening in the first century. Why? Why do we lose our grip on the grace of God, why do we lose hope, why do we waver?

What are the sources of unbelief? We could make a short list. Bad things happen to good people. Good people do terrible things to each other. We make plans for the future and we are disappointed. The world is a mess.

Hold fast to the confession of your hope, don’t waver. On a good day, it is easy, on a bad day, it is more difficult . Why do we hold fast to the confession of our hope? Hebrews gives a simple answer: God is faithful.

And then, let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. It is not just vertical, us and God, or individual, me and God. It is horizontal, it is social: let us provoke one another to love and good deeds. I like that. For me, it is the church at its best.

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. What does it mean to provoke? To arouse a feeling or action, to incite to anger, to stir something up. Why do people do good in the world? Sometimes they are provoked, something angers them, a homeless person freezes to death, a child in Haiti eats dirt, young adults who have given much for our country in military service, return, but do not receive adequate medical or mental health services. At our best, Providence is a community that provokes one another to love and good deeds.

And here the lesson concludes: not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Not neglecting to meet together. Now there are persons in our church who cannot be here because of physical limitations, and I see or speak with someone in this category most every week. This church, this gathering is their heart and soul, it is their life, and they cannot be present.

I am speaking about a different reality. The person who was involved when their children were in the weekday school, when their youth were in MYF or the Choir. And then, over time, something happened. They lost that lovin feeling. And it became easy to stay away. And it became just as easy to build a rationale for staying away.

Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some…do you think the writer of Hebrews knows about someone who was once really involved and then…just drifted away, and said, “I never see that person anymore”. Have you ever heard yourself say that?

There is a well-traveled story about a man whose friend had once been active in the life of the church, teaching youth, serving the poor, ushering in worship. And then he got out of the habit, and then it became easy to justify a different pattern of behavior. This bothered his friend, to the extent that he felt he needed to go by and see him. And so he did.

They arranged to meet, they talked together privately in the den, warmed by a roaring fire. After a few minutes the friend who had drifted away came to the point, and made no apologies. “I just don’t feel the need to be there anymore.” His friend listened, and inwardly prayed for the right words to say, and then it came to him that he really did not need to say anything.

He walked over to flame of the roaring fire, and with the large scissor tongs took one of the logs and separated it from the others, laying it to the side.

He went back and sat down for a few moments and the two looked at the fireplace, and particularly at the lone log. After a time that flame had died, and over time, both knew, it would grow cold.

“This is why we need you”, his friend said, “and this is why you need us.”

In response to all that God has done for us, let us hold fast to the confession of our hope, let us provoke one another to love and good deeds, and let us not neglect to meet together.


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